In a win-or-go-home game that finishes 9-8, there are going to be a lot of important moments. Big plays made or not made by players. Important decisions made or not made by managers. Huge calls made or not made by umpires. We never want to focus on the umpires if at all possible because it takes away from the more important and more entertaining aspects of the game. At some point, however, it’s impossible to omit them from the conversation.
In the top of the fifth inning of last night’s deciding Division Series game between the Cubs and Nationals, the visiting team had runners on first and second base. With two outs and an 0-2 count, Max Scherzer threw Javy Baez a pitch in the dirt. Baez swung and missed for strike three, but the ball got past Matt Wieters, allowing Baez to run to first base. During Baez’s backswing, his bat made contact with Wieters’ helmet.
Here’s what the play looked like in real time:
Wieters ran after the ball and then threw wildly to first. The throw evaded not one but two Nationals infielders before right fielder Bryce Harper finally retrieved it. In the meantime, Addison Russell scored from third, increasing the Cubs’ lead to 6-4. The Cubs would add another run that inning, ultimately holding off the Nationals 9-8 to win the game and series.
There’s some debate over whether Baez should have been called out after making contact with Wieters. Had Baez been ruled out, the game would have unfolded differently. Instead of exiting the inning down 7-4, the Nationals would have headed to the bottom of the fifth trailing by just a run. Matt Wieters and Dusty Baker both talked to umpire Jerry Layne about the play, prompting Layne to discuss it with the rest of his crew before allowing the play to stand. While Baker never officially protested the call, there are legitimate reasons — which Jeff Long first brought to my attention — to believe that the umpires might have blown it.
Here is the rule in question, found under 6.03, titled Batter Illegal Action, with the relevant rule being (a)(3). The batter should be ruled out if:
(3) He interferes with the catcher’s fielding or throwing by stepping out of the batter’s box or making any other movement that hinders the catcher’s play at home base.
This is followed by a comment, as follows:
If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire’s judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.
We know Baez’s backswing hit Wieters. It was sufficiently obvious that the umpires wouldn’t have missed it. The way the rule above is written, that would seem to be the only relevant matter. The judgment of the umpire is relevant only to the degree that he has determined that the catcher has been impacted.
So Baez should be out and the inning over, right? Well, the umpires saw it differently. From Adam Kilgore’s piece in the Washington Post:
“Backswing interference is a play where a guy is stealing or there’s a play being made a runner hindering the catch,” Layne said afterward. “It was a wild pitch and went past him. That is no longer in that particular description, in my judgment. In my judgment, the passed ball changed the whole rule around to where, in my judgment, it had nothing to do with everything. Therefore, it didn’t have any effect on it. In my judgment.”
“When the ball gets past him, all right, in my judgment he didn’t have any more opportunity after he had a chance to field the ball,” Layne said. “There was no further play that could have been made on it. The graze of the helmet didn’t have anything to do, in my judgment, with anything at all, with that particular play. I understand, it’s pretty much my judgment. I got together and found everybody was in agreement. That’s what we went with.”
Again, given the way the rule above is written, there’s no room for the type of personal discretion Layne cites here. There’s another rule that would permit a judgment call, however, and it appears to be the more relevant one in this case. (H/T Better Rule Book.)
This is 6.01(a)(1):
6.01 Interference, Obstruction, and Catcher Collisions
(a) (7.09) Batter or Runner Interference
It is interference by a batter or a runner when:
(1) After a third strike that is not caught by the catcher, the batter-runner clearly hinders the catcher in his attempt to field the ball. Such batter-runner is out, the ball is dead, and all other runners return to the bases they occupied at the time of the pitch;
This particular rule actually uses language that specifically addresses the situation we had last night (after a called third strike), identifies the relevant parties (batter-runner and catcher), and directs umpires to utilize their judgment (clearly hinders) to determine if the play was affected. Jerry Layne and the umpires used the appropriate rule, and they were correct to use their judgment.
As for whether that judgment was correct, that’s a separate matter. Here’s the moment of contact in slower motion:
The rulebook specifically uses the word clearly, and this modification of the word hinder ensures that there should be little doubt about whether the potential interference had an effect. Incidental contact that exerts little bearing on the play is definitely not to be considered interference under this rule. That said, there’s a really good argument to be made that what we see here does count as interference of some sort. Wieters’ head is moved significantly by the blow from the bat. With even just a quarter-second more time, Wieters would have gotten to the ball sooner and potentially made a better throw — or, at least, a throw that doesn’t get past both Nationals infielders.
As to whether Layne applied the correct rule, that appears to be the case. There’s nothing replay or a protest could have or should have done to change the result of the play. As to whether Layne correctly interpreted the rule, concluding that Wieters wasn’t clearly hindered by the shot to the head, that’s up for debate. It was an important play in an important game, and Layne and the rest of the crew might have missed one here. Unless replay is fundamentally changed to allow review of judgment calls, however — and even then, the play probably doesn’t get overturned — there is nothing egregious about the call last night.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.